By JAYNA HOFFACKER, Commentary | Published February 25, 2019
Justice is something we have heard a lot about in recent years. It seems everyone is calling for it in one form or another. We have undoubtedly all asked ourselves—and each other—how justice can have so very many different definitions. Whose justice are we to seek? What is the right thing to do? The body of Catholic social thought and the tradition of social justice in the church can give us our call to action.
When we pursue this call to action, however, we may be tempted to focus on the doing of justice, leaving us to treat its social aspect as little more than an adjective for the justice we are out in the world trying to promote. Ignoring or minimizing the social dimension of this justice, however, would be to miss an essential part of our very selves and the horizon toward which we should all constantly strive. It is, in essence, how we become and develop as human beings.
The Second Vatican Council articulated a vision of the human being and society as both interdependent upon and inextricable from each other.
“Man’s social nature,” the Council fathers wrote in Gaudium et spes (Joy and Hope), “makes it evident that the progress of the human person and the advance of society itself hinge on each other” (Gaudium et spes, 25). The “progress” of which they spoke is the realization of justice for the individual and for society as a whole. To put it another way, justice is a function of human relationships.
Points of intersection
This is the point at which the Catholic Church’s vision of social justice departs from a secular or political understanding. The church’s social justice tradition cannot be strictly identified with any particular political movement or party. There are, without doubt, points of intersection and agreement, and it is on those points of convergence that we can find partnership in the work of justice. However, the social justice tradition of the church charts a middle course, striving to avoid overly individualistic ends as well as collectivist philosophies that privilege the communal good to the point of violating the autonomy and dignity of the individual. We must promote individual human dignity and the common good.
Within this understanding of human dignity, we have not only rights for ourselves, but a duty toward others. For example, the right to private property, Pope St. John XXIII teaches, “is a natural right possessed by all, which the State may by no means suppress. However, as there is from nature a social aspect to private property, he who uses his right in this regard must take into account not merely his own welfare but that of others as well” (Mater et magistra, 19). We see that even within the acknowledgement that each of us is a child of God imbued with our own innate worth, dignity, and rights is the understanding that we are all also brothers and sisters to each other, and responsible to and for each other.
The work is being done when we stock the shelves of our parish food pantry or pray for the protection of life. As we do these works of charity and justice, we should remind ourselves of St. Ignatius’ call to find God in all things. If we do, then in our encounter and relationship with others, we will see the face of our divine creator. We will see him in the face of a refugee, in the face of a victim of AIDS, and in the face of a prisoner sitting on death row. When these are the eyes through which we see, and encounter the world, justice—social justice—becomes for us not just a virtue we strive to embody as an individual, but a moral imperative upon which we must act for the common good.
Jayna Hoffacker is program coordinator, Justice and Peace Ministries of the Archdiocese of Atlanta. “A Call to Action” is a new column of the ministry and its volunteers. To receive a copy of the Justice and Peace newsletter, email firstname.lastname@example.org.